Sir Alec Guinness was born in London in 1914. As a young man, he had a stint at an advertising firm, but soon began acting lessons. His first film role was as an extra in the musical Evensong (1934) produced by Michael Balcon, who would
later take over Ealing Studios where Guinness became a major player. Guinness, whose focus in his earlier years was theater, worked with John Gielgud’s theatre company and at the Old Vic and performed in a variety of Shakespearean and other classic roles. In 1939, Guinness adapted Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations for the stage and played the role of Herbert Pocket to great acclaim. He joined the Navy in 1941, taking part in the invasion of Sicily and Elba and transporting supplies to Yugoslav partisans. After the war’s end, he returned to the stage before reprising his stage role in David Lean’s film adaptation of Great Expectations (1946). He starred again for Lean as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948). Balcon then cast him in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he played eight different roles. This film was quickly followed by A Run for Your Money (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Captain’s Paradise (1953), and, his last film at Ealing, The Ladykillers (1955). Besides his roles in the Ealing comedies, he is most acclaimed for his work with David Lean. In addition to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, he appeared in Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he won an Academy Award as Best Actor, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984). Other roles during this period include The Swan (1956) opposite Grace Kelly, The Horse’s Mouth (1958) for which he also wrote the screenplay and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1959), Marley’s ghost in Scrooge (1970), Pope Innocent III in Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), the title role in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), and the blind butler in Murder By Death (1976). But it was his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy (Star Wars, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; and Return of the Jedi, 1983) that brought Guinness to the attention of a new generation and a new legion of fans.
However, despite the financial rewards of Star Wars, he regretted it aesthetically and was unhappy that modern audiences knew him only for that role. He also starred as George Smiley in the television miniseries of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Little Dorrit (1988). He received an Honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1980 and wrote three volumes of a best-selling autobiography. He died of liver cancer on at the age of 86 in August 2000.
Other Rialto titles starring Alec Guinness:
Barnacle Bill (1957)
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